I remember my Sunderland review last season. I told you the story of my visit to Roker Park. My many visits. My many unplanned and increasingly frustrating visits as we attempted to escape from Sunderland en route to Cullercoats. In passing I might mention that Cullercoats is a pleasant little seaside town between Tynemouth and Whitley Bay, but that needn’t concern any of us today. The simple fact is that as I allowed my pre match thoughts to wend their way down a nostalgic B road I entirely failed to predict the events that would unfold, and surely bloggers should be able to tell you mere mortals the precise ways of the future. Shouldn’t we?
The game was a real dig in and fight for it affair on a horrible bumpy pitch. We played in yellow with nasty red brown shorts and won the three points with a lovely crafted goal finished with aplomb by Santi Cazorla. Only heroics from Mignolet, the Sunderland post and Wojciech Szczęsny kept the score to one nil but the story of the match hinged on a few defensive performances and one truly dreadful refereeing display.
Cattermole wasn’t even booked when he could so easily have broken Aaron Ramsay’s legs with a really ghastly challenge while young Carl Jenkinson was sent off for two miss timed tackles. Throughout the game that man Anthony Taylor allowed appalling violent play to pass entirely unpunished and it remains a bewildering mystery that Arsenal had to see out a tense final half an hour with ten men whilst a thuggish Sunderland side who would have received red cards on a rugby pitch for some of their assaults on our players completed the match with eleven. Jack Wilshere was literally kicked off the pitch, Fletcher nearly equalized after controlling with a blatant handball and we had to play in a cauldron of vociferous partisan support with a resilience and courage for which we are (unjustly) not renowned.
However, despite all of this drama, the performance which stands out in my mind was that of Bacary Sagna. Drafted into the centre following a late withdrawal by Lauren Koscielny our uber versatile defensive maestro was an absolute rock. I know Arsène had used Bacary in the centre before and as a left fullback during one of our most horrendous injury crises but never has the man’s versatility shone as it did that day. It was an often brutal affair with a lot of old fashioned high balls and crunching aerial collisions but Bacary Baresi was equal to all of them. I don’t want to give the impression that his performance was all about strength and resisting the hooliganism of the opposition though. It was the coolness with which he managed to direct his defensive headers to team mates that impressed me. It’s one thing to go up and stick yer nut on it and quite another thing entirely to turn that head butt into a weighted pass to a midfielder. Instigating a quick counter attack from a ball that comes down with ice on it is no easy skill. Not that he was averse to launching a forty yarder onto Olivier’s head when the occasion called for it, but mostly he won the ball and played a quick imperious pass to a team mate and resumed his station alongside the BFG. He was resolute, tidy, athletic, decisive and perfectly placed throughout the match.
Judging by his remarks this week we might get to see more of him alongside Lauren or Per in the future. In an honest appraisal of his own advancing years he accepted that the modern fullback needs to put in a shift to which he himself might not be equal in the coming seasons. More than speed and agility though it was mental strength that he identified as his key attribute. I think it’s all too easy for us to overlook the psychological fortitude of our squad sometimes. Easy because we are so often dazzled by their quick feet and lightning fast movement. Sunderland away last year showed the importance of the mental strength Bacary talked about. He is a player who has had to pick himself up after some awful injuries and a couple of costly errors in high profile games but he’s done it with a quiet determination, a deafness to the pathetic knee jerk reactions of the worst of our supporters and I believe will be a key member of a squad for many years to come.
If news of Per Mertesacker’s upset tummy are true it looks like Bac will have a chance to reprise his masterful performance of last winter. How the new Sunderland will shape up is more of a mystery though. As with our previous opponents from Middlesex the Black Cats have made a whole raft of new signings recently. I think it’s fourteen but I could be out by half a dozen or so. Like Arsène Wenger I believe a settled squad with personnel who are completely at ease with each other’s style of play is far more important that wholesale changes. One or two key signings joining a team on a roll ought to trump a bunch of strangers still trying to learn one another’s names. Of course this is sport not maths and as Anthony Taylor proved when playing for Aston Villa and very nearly managed in this fixture last time around, sport can be an unpredictable and ruthless duchess. The one factor Sunderland will have on their side today whatever the form and regardless of the line ups is the home support. The old cliché about the twelfth man is nowhere more certain to have an effect than in the Stadium of Light. They took the Roker Roar with them when they moved house and will howl at every perceived injustice, hound the officials and lift the home side for every second of the game and quite right too. A little more of that at the Emirates and who knows where our home form might take us.
I am a hopeless blogger when it comes to predicting the future, and I apologise for this lack of superhuman talent. All I can say is this is the classic post international situation for us: a tough trip up North. I see no reason not to be optimistic but I know that we will need all the courage and fighting spirit with which our makeshift centre back held us together last time around. Whatever happens I just hope we don’t wear those bloody awful shorts again.